To much of the world's audiences, Wallace Shawn is, face it, kind of a funny-looking guy -- a master character actor in movies and TV shows that need to cast a balding, squat, pink man with a peculiar, querulous voice and perhaps a mysterious smile.
He is Diane Keaton's ex-husband -- basically a sight gag -- in "Manhattan" and the irresistible villain in "The Princess Bride." If moviegoers know another side, they have seen "My Dinner With André," the 1981 cult classic in which he and longtime collaborator-director André Gregory talk charmingly of theater and life's profundities while sitting in a fancy restaurant.
To lucky theatergoers in London and New York, however, Shawn is one of the major playwrights of conscience in our time -- and arguably the best-kept secret. Since the mid-'70s, he has been writing provocative, disturbing, genuinely upsetting works that, at their most unforgettable, ask what we will allow to happen to others to protect ways we prefer to live.
In 1985 (and revived in 2003), his play "Aunt Dan and Lemon" created a lovely female character who justifies fascism by explaining, ever so sweetly, that we empower others to do our violence so we don't have to.
In 1990 (and revived in 2007), "The Fever" had a man (Shawn) waking up on the bathroom floor of a hotel in a "poor country" where a "small war" is happening and, ever so persuasively, explaining the very real plight of privileged people who "oppose cruelty and violence," but really love their "clean white sheets."
Shawn's works are forever on my short list of plays I would like to see right now.
And right now -- or, more precisely, from now through mid-November -- we are going to be able to see two of them at the Public Theater in a co-production with Theatre for a New Audience.
Opening tonight is "The Designated Mourner," directed by Gregory and starring Shawn, poet (and Shawn's longtime companion) Deborah Eisenberg and Shawn veteran Larry Pine in New York's first revival of the 1996 play about an unnamed, formerly progressive country where intellectual life is being repressed.
The American premiere of "Grasses of a Thousand Colors" begins previews Oct. 8, directed by Gregory and starring Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Emily McDonnell and Jennifer Tilly. Shawn plays a scientist who encounters unexpected consequences after he solves world hunger.
Under the umbrella title "The Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project," this is a small but undoubtedly potent festival of work by these famously old friends and co-creators.
In addition to the plays, screenings will be held Aug. 3-4 at Joe's Pub of Louis Malle's "My Dinner With André," along with the revelatory 1994 Chekhov exploration called "Vanya on 42nd Street," starring Shawn and Julianne Moore and a new bio-documentary, "André Gregory: Before and After Dinner." A preliminary schedule of post-play discussions include ones about "the disappearance of civil liberties in the age of terror" and actors talking about "performing for André and Wally."
Meanwhile, at your local art houses, Jonathan Demme's filming of Shawn/Gregory's 14-year exploration of Ibsen's "The Master Builder" will open in the fall.
According to Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, a live production of "The Master Builder" originally was part of the festival plan. "But the movie came together very, very fast," he told me in a recent phone interview. "Since it's going to be released as a regular studio film in the same time period, it feels very close to us."
Horowitz came up with the idea of a Shawn/Gregory series after a lunch with Shawn. When he found out there were no plans for a New York production of "Grasses," which opened at London's Royal Court in 2009, Horowitz wondered if he could make it possible to have a real retrospective "of these two men's amazing relationship. Why not see 'Grasses' in the context of their other work? I really want people to understand the breadth of this work."
In fact, Horowitz's first professional theater job was as an actor in Shawn's 1976 "Youth Hostel: A Thought in Three Parts." It played at the Public in the same room where "Designated Mourner" and "Grasses" will be performed.
The theater has only 99 seats, which seems far too small to satisfy the number of people who will be -- or should be -- interested in the plays. On the other hand, Shawn and Gregory originally stipulated that the theater seat no more than 49 -- which is consistent with their tradition of performing in tiny spaces, often in the living rooms of friends.
In 2000, "Designated Mourner" was a very tight ticket, presented for just 30 people a night in a desolate former men's club in the Wall Street area. Shawn and Gregory agreed to the 99 seats only after designer Eugene Lee showed them a miking system that, according to Horowitz, "would make that room feel as intimate as a room for 25 or 50 people."
Asked about Shawn's appeal, he said, "He is so charming that he makes us feel complicit. Because of his own ambivalence and his humanity, characters who are morally depraved seem absolutely human."
The ambivalence and the humanity are especially clear in "Fever," where Shawn, the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, talks about the loving entitlement he -- or his character -- has known from birth, a life that honors good food, beautiful dancing, Beethoven and the way presents are wrapped. "My friends and I were delicate, precious, breakable children and we knew it from the way the presents were wrapped."
As he -- or his character -- says, "If food is provided for the hungry children, certain operas will not be performed." And so, as we choose to see his brilliant and subversive plays, the dilemma is inescapable. Unpleasant, but real.